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Sprinting to success: looking at dev teams through cycling fan eyes

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2016 Giro d’Italia, image courtesy of Slipstream Cannondale

By Chris King Deputy CIO, NIHR

I currently have two obsessions that dominate the larger part of my working day.

The first obsession comes from the fact that we are in the final throes of an all consuming Agile development, that will draw to a close in days, rather than weeks now. The second is the Giro d’Italia. Yes, I will sheepishly admit that around 3.30-4pm every day for the last two weeks, my attention has drifted, momentarily at least, from user stories to real stories of hope; of cyclists giving their all in the pursuit of the Maglia Rosa – the pink jersey of the race leader.

What has been an interesting aspect to both obsessions is how they have seemingly, without much thought, started to blend together. To take on a third, unified form. Let me explain.

As much as it may not seem like it to the casual observer, professional cycling is a team sport built on the many differing attributes of its participants. Whilst some of you may have raised only the slightest interest at the sight of Sir Bradley Wiggins riding around a track on his own for an hour – the hardcore (armchair) fans amongst us can spend hours analysing how the peloton (the large group of riders) works at various stages of a race. It’s no different (if your mind is wired that way) to assessing how development teams work.

Each team has an owner, a CEO. They have little input on the day to day running of the team – but they will quickly, and vocally assert their authority if the team is not performing.

They leave the day to day planning to the Director Sportif, the Executive Sponsor who is responsible for identifying and bringing the team together. It is this role that ultimately “signs off” how the team will work – agile, waterfall, general classification (the overall winner of a race) or to target shorter stages – at the start of each race or project.

The person they tend to build the team around is the key rider, our knowledge expert, that will see the race – the project – through to the end. The General Classification rider or Product Owner won’t have all the attributes or knowledge needed for every stage or sprint, but they will be the inspiration that keeps the team committed to delivering their goal.

The next role is that of the road captain – or in Agile terms – the scrum master. The road captain keeps everyone together and supports the Director Sportif in terms of the team management. When things get a little hairy and it looks like the team might be in a spot of bother, the road captain is there with a reassuring voice to keep the unit together. They will talk to the team to see how things are going, support riders if they want to take on more, to stretch their efforts, and even drop back to help those that need assistance when the profile of each stage, each sprint, is harder than their original assessment. They are a rolling daily stand up within the pack of riders around them – at the front when needed, but more often than not, coming in relatively unnoticed at the end; theirs is not a ride for glory.

In the recent Tour of California, rider Bernie Eisel demonstrated what it meant to be a road captain for Team Dimension Data. He knew he had to “bury himself”, to put his team first and all of his effort into closing the gap between a breakaway group of riders and his Product Owner, Mark Cavendish. Eisel knew from experience, that by putting in the necessary effort far enough out from the finish, he would help to close the gap and leave Cavendish with a shot at glory. Without Eisel taking control, Cavendish would not have gone on to win the stage as he did. The race was won as much by Eisel adapting what he has learnt over the years, as it was by Cavendish on the day.

The breakaway is an interesting aspect of most races. This usually consists of a small group of riders that are instructed by their teams to ride as hard and as fast away from the pack for as long as is possible. Not necessarily to win, but often because the support staff have assessed the planned route, understood the requirements of the team and have decided that they want to support the GC rider, our Product Owner, with someone ahead of the race should they need assistance or information later on. Think of this as a business analyst working with a developer to spike a story, to make sure their assessment of the effort it will take to complete is correct.

The mountains make up the backbone of most long stage races, where the effort and dedication of the team is always tested to the max. This section of the race is not for everybody. You need someone that can go into the red for longer than most and bring the team home to the summit. The road captain tends to deliver the team to the bottom of the climb, then various members of the team take their time at the front of the pack before the natural climber will jump free and ride, without inhibition, through the kilometers to the top. These are your lead developers. They are the ones that sit with a mountain of code in front of them, not stopping until each story has been developed – going through the night if they have hit a difficult patch – before finally settling down as the effort levels start to drop again. You need to be protective of these riders, watching that they don’t “bonk” – run out of energy – as the mountain stages start to build over the length of the project. The road captain needs to know when to take them out of the firing line and distribute the work amongst the rest of the team – the domestiques – at the first sign of trouble.

In cycling a domestique is a key support role. They take their turns on the front of the pack to help keep their GC rider out of trouble. They lead out – in a thin line riding for all their worth – to position their sprinters at the end of the race. They drop back to the Director Sportif to pick up fuel, clothing and instructions for the rest of the team. They sometimes get a chance to join the breakaway, but their job in the main is to protect and guide their team through the transitional phases of the stage. They are the supporting developers, testers, analysts and the service support team. In meetings and presentations you will often find them sat with headphones on, blocking out the noise as they carry on, carrying the team through to the end of each sprint.

Sometimes a domestique rises above the role of support personnel and takes on the mantel of super-domestique. Or Plan B. They may start the race off playing second fiddle to the main project focus, but if something changes – your Product Owner goes on annual leave or your lead developer is taken ill – the super-domestique is waiting in the pack, ready to take on the lead role. The Director Sportif will keep a close eye on how they perform, checking to see whether they can be promoted to race leader should the next project need their skills and expertise.

The final role in any cycling team is the sprinter. The glory seekers. They only come into their own right at the end. A sometimes fickle, fragile bunch, they need to be coaxed over the mountains and be protected at the front of the peloton. To be feed, watered and supported as the race progresses. They can become detached. To drop off from the pack at any stage due to belief (lack thereof) or simply because they struggle to keep up with what is happening. But when they get it right, they ride to the front, time their efforts and take the race on the line. In some ways, there is no better description of an end user of a system. Their lead out train, the team that does everything for them – the developers, testers, Product Owners, project managers and Subject Matter Experts – will have done everything to ensure the system is right for them when they start their sprint; enter into User Acceptance Testing. Some will moan the system doesn’t do what they need – hitting their handle bars with accusations that their lead out train didn’t work. However, when it does – when expectation aligns with results – they are the ones to throw their hands in the air as they cross the line in jubilation; as the system goes live.

The rest of the team role in behind – on the road, around a service desk – already planning their preparation for the next race; the next project.

 Chris King, Deputy CIO within the Information and Knowledge Directorate (I&K) at the NIHR Clinical Research Network.

But what of me, I hear you ask. What role does a Deputy Chief Information Officer take in this mashup of an agile development and road cycling analogy?

I’m a soigneur – one who provides care. My role is, as is the role of a soigneur on a cycling team: to feed the team (compliments or packets of biscuits). To escort them from stage to stage and to make sure they have everything they need. Occasionally I am called on to massage (egos); to patch up bumps and bruises when the rough and tumble of a sprint has been hard on the team. I have to be there, in the background, watching over them – ready to step in whenever called upon.

So here’s to the soigneurs. The real heartbeat of our winning team (after the Executive Sponsor, Product Owners, Subject Matter Experts, Developers, Testers, Business Analysts, Project Managers and End Users).

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